Nostalgia – Week 26 of the 52 week short story challenge – halfway there

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The scene in the photograph is idyllic; a long garden with flowered borders and a neatly mown lawn. At the end of the lawn is a large tree and under it, a group of children cluster around a young girl. I am one of those children and looking back up the garden to the house, I can remember seeing all the grown-ups looking out at us with glasses of champagne in their hands.

The house belonged to my grandparents. The celebration was for the twelfth birthday of my cousin Caroline, it is she that is sitting like a queen in our midst. She is chubby for her age and the pink be-frilled party dress that my aunt has dressed her in makes her look like one of those crinoline ladies that people put over their toilet rolls.

She is an only child and spoiled rotten. We are a large family. Our grandparents had seven children and nineteen grandchildren ranging in ages from my cousin Andrew aged fourteen, down to our newest cousin Rachel. She is only a few months old and is back in the house with the grown-ups and half a dozen other under-twos who can’t be let loose in the garden.

One of my aunts emigrated to New Zealand; she and her husband don’t think that Caroline’s birthday party merits uprooting their four children in order to make a long and very expensive journey to England. They are off the Christmas and Birthday card list as far as my grandparents are concerned.

We’ve only had a twenty minute drive to get here and I didn’t think it was worth it either. It was my birthday a month ago and my grandparents didn’t even turn up at our house on the day; they were busy doing something or other with Caroline.

Caroline’s father jumped ship when she was three years old. His wife, my Aunty Suzy, had spent every last penny he earned on Caroline and herself. He had grown exhausted by Suzy’s excesses and, finding a sympathetic ear, went off with his secretary. Suzy and Caroline came to live with our grandparents and the rest of the family were knocked back into insignificance almost immediately

My Uncle Charlie fell out with Suzy some years ago, so he, his wife and their two children are absent as well. Like all his other brothers and sisters, Charlie felt that Suzy and Caroline were running through the family inheritance as fast as they could but he was the only one to stand up to her. Suzy is the apple of her parents’ eyes; she could do no wrong and Caroline has inherited all of her most toxic traits.

My grandparents were not bad people. They loved all their children and grandchildren – just not equally.

I am back in the present day. I am tired and tetchy. I have to juggle a demanding job, a neurotic ex-husband, two daughter at universities and my mother. I don’t want to look at photographs but it is the only thing that makes my mother happy nowadays.

My mother, her memories faded by time, looks at the photograph and smiles.

‘That was such a happy day.’ she says as she touches the faded photograph with her forefinger and turns the page of the album.

‘Was it?’ I say, doing my very best to keep my voice even. ‘Don’t you remember what happened after that photograph was taken?’

She shakes her head and I am in a quandary. Dementia has robbed her of her memories and although I want to shake her and share my memories, I can’t and I won’t, but I remember it all so clearly.

Caroline presided over our group because she did that in everything, but as today was her birthday she had even more special powers. She had been given a book on palm reading – when I say given – I mean demanded from her grandparents. She had decided, after reading a few pages and looked at some pictures, that she was now an expert and would read all our palms.

She started with Andrew; technically the eldest but we all knew that he was different. He was quiet, fascinated by insects and animals, and today we would probably say he was at the lower end of the autistic spectrum, but in those days he was just different.

He very reluctantly held out his grubby hand. Caroline looked at it with disgust and made some pretence at tracing the lines without actually touching them.

‘Hmmm, your lifeline isn’t very long. Can’t see you living past your mid-thirties. No children and a failed marriage. You really haven’t got much to look forward to have you?’ Caroline smirked and motioned Andrew to move away from her.

I was the next oldest.

‘Come on Trisha. You aren’t scared surely?’

‘No thanks.’ I managed a brief smile and backed away.

‘Coward! The twins next then.’ She beckons Sally and Tom over, knowing that at eight years old they are still under her power. She fails to find anything interesting in either of their hands and waves them away to join Andrew on the outskirts of the group.

She deals with my four year old cousin Alice in a very imperious fashion, knowing that her mother and Alice’s mother aren’t on speaking terms at the moment either.

Apart from myself, that leaves one child – my beloved baby brother Gerald. He is three years old and a beautiful but frail child. He has spent much of his short life in hospital and we are devoted to each other. Unfortunately he has yet to realise that the golden-haired, pink-clad Caroline is to be avoided. He breaks free of my grasp and runs to her when she offers him a sweet.

Grabbing his hand, she looks up at me triumphantly.

‘Gerry’s lifeline is very short Trisha. No marriage and no children but then he was never expected to last very long was he?’

I pull Gerry out of her grasp and with him under my arm, I carry him back to the house. My mother can see something is amiss and takes me aside. When I tell her what Caroline has said, she calls my father over and he starts gathering up our belongings.

‘Leaving so soon?’ Suzy purrs. The other children – and Caroline – have come in from the garden and Caroline has lost no time in telling her mother HER version of the incident.

‘It’s just a bit of harmless fun darlings. Caroline didn’t mean to upset Trisha, but you have to accept, she does get upset SO easily.’

Nevertheless, we leave, followed speedily by the rest of the family visitors. The birthday tea untouched, the birthday candles on the cake have not even been lit. Yet again, Caroline and Suzy have split the family.

My darling brother Gerry died a month later, and whilst we knew that Caroline was not the cause, I still blamed her for his death, and went on blaming her whenever anything went wrong in our lives.

My cousin Andrew got married just before his thirtieth birthday. We all thought there was a chance of success because she worked with adults with learning difficulties and seemed to understand him. She certainly understood the benefits system. Andrew became very depressed when his bride of a year left him. A neighbour found him unconscious after overdosing on the pills that were supposed to help. He never regained consciousness. Thanks Caroline.

My grandparents were so wrapped up with Suzy and Caroline that they barely noticed our absence. As they grew older and more frail, Suzy put them in a care home. She had very cannily arranged power of attorney for both of them, and had them change their wills so that she was the sole beneficiary. We didn’t even know where they were until they died – within a few days of each other. The solicitor contacted us to tell us the outcome of their wills.

It was just a formality.

It didn’t take Suzy long to run through the money, and then the house had to be sold. Caroline was in private education and the bills for her dance classes, elocution and etiquette sessions had to be paid.

Caroline lost weight; she became willowy and glamorous courtesy of costly nips, tucks, breast augmentation and a nose job. She treated her mother with contempt, especially after their inheritance was no more. Suzy aged badly after this, sold up the smaller house that she and Caroline had moved to, bought a small retirement flat for herself and rented an apartment for Caroline up in London.

‘Caroline has so many good friends in London and she needs to finish her courses if she wants to settle there.’

Famous last words Aunty Suzy. Where were Caroline and her good friends when you were diagnosed with terminal cancer?  If you had gone to the doctor sooner; if you hadn’t spent all your money on Caroline and her wonderful lifestyle, if you hadn’t raised one of the most selfish, hateful women I have ever met.

Suzy died penniless last year and we clubbed together for her funeral; her remaining sisters and brothers, nephews and nieces – even those who still live in New Zealand.

My mother sits in the armchair in my front room. She spends much of her time there in a rosy cloud of nostalgia, looking at pictures of the old days.

The old days.

The days before Caroline got involved in sticking cocaine up her nose.

The days before she got involved in drug smuggling for her ‘good friends’ to pay for her nasty habits.

The days before she was found dead in her rented apartment. The police broke in after the landlord advised that she hadn’t been paying the rent and there were a lot of flies around. No sign of those good friends now.

It is time for another funeral. We have had to club together again. Caroline wanted a pink hearse with horses but we can only afford the basic package. I’m hoping that my mother will have forgotten about the pink hearse and the death of her only son when she cries at my cousin’s funeral.

 

Pink Hearse

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Summer Solstice- Week 25 of the 52 week short story challenge

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‘Come with me my love?’ he said. ‘Come with me and we’ll celebrate the coming of summer. We’ll dance and sing. We’ll watch the moon rise and the sun come up the next morning.’

He made it sound so magical, but then he made everything sound magical.

‘Please?’ he said, taking my hands in his. Such strong hands with long, slim fingers. A musician’s hands and he knew just how to play me.

‘It’s going to be special this year. Not just a full moon but the Strawberry Moon. It takes years to come around and who knows if we’ll see another one?’

‘Why is it called the Strawberry Moon?’ I asked. He was six years older than me and he knew so much more than I did.

He smiled. Squeezing my hand and looking deep into my eyes.

‘Come with me and you’ll understand.’

That smile. It was so sweet but mysterious and I felt so drawn to him.

Four months.

I will always remember the first time I saw him. I was transfixed.

I’d gone to the student union with some friends to see a group play. Not that I attended the Uni, I had a few more years of school to go, but the bar staff didn’t really care how old you were anyway.

The concert itself was mediocre. A group of men and women dressed in hippy clothes; they danced, sang and acted out some poetry but after an hour of perching on a rough wooden scaffold board, we decided it was time to slip out quietly and head for the bar.

That was when I saw him. He was tall; a good head and shoulders taller than those surrounding him. His mop of brown curls dipped past the collar of his worn but clean denim shirt. His jeans were tight in all the right places, and he was leaning casually against the bar, pint glass in one hand, guitar case clutched in the other.

There were lads clustered round him as well as the usual group of worldly girls who frequented the bar – but didn’t attend the Uni.

He was smiling. That slow smile that I came to know so well. Then as I was gazing at him, our eyes met and his smile grew wider as I blushed. In hushed tones I asked my friends if they knew who he was but they were as fascinated as I was.

He drained his glass and I felt desperately sad at the thought of him leaving. Instead he opened up the guitar case and took out his guitar. Perching on a bar stool he began to play. I ignored my friends. I had to watch him. Had to watch those long fingers plucking at the strings and when he began to sing ‘Light My Fire’ in a low but very clear voice, I was mesmerised.

He played half a dozen songs; they were covers but he made them his own and despite his friends asking him to play some more, he shook his curly head and nodded in my direction. This was a man who knew how to leave them wanting more.

Picking up his newly filled glass, he came over to our table and pulled up a chair.

‘Hi, I’m Tommy. And you are?’

‘I’m – I’m Giulia.’ I gasped and blushed again.

‘It’s good to meet you Giulia. Did you enjoy the group?’ His voice had a very slight American twang to it.

I pulled a face about the group.

‘I thought you were much better.’

‘Why thank you. Can I get you a drink?’

My still-full glass of barley wine was sitting in front of me. It tasted foul but it was cheap and more potent than beer or lager. I could make a bottle last all evening if necessary. I shook my head and pointed at the glass.

‘No thank you.’ My mother would have been so proud of my good manners.

‘Is that barley wine?’ he picked up the glass, sniffed it and wrinkled his nose in disgust. ‘Do you really like that stuff?’

‘Not really, but it’s cheap and everyone else drinks it.’

‘Would you rather have a Coke or some orange juice then?’

‘I’d love some orange juice.’

He turned to a friend who was at the bar.

‘Can you get me some orange juice for the lovely Giulia please?’

In seconds the drink was in my hand and I sipped it gratefully. It was a taste that would always remind me of Tommy.

‘You have the most incredible eyes Giulia. They are like a cat’s eyes, green and very observant.’

The cynic in me sighed because I had heard this before. Next he’d be saying how my hair was like a raven’s wing and my skin the colour of warm honey.

My mother’s eyes, my father’s hair and complexion. She was an innocent girl from Ireland who came over to work as a nanny and was swept off her feet by an Italian sailor who she met at a dance.

They met, they married and they created me. Joy was short-lived however because my father went back to sea after I was born and I never saw him again. He was killed in a brawl in some sleazy bar. We never really knew the details. As a consequence we were very close, my mother and I. We had no secrets.

At a time when my fellow schoolgirls were spotty, pale-skinned and very self-conscious, I had a permanent tan, long glossy black hair and my mother’s green eyes. I was used to people looking at me but put it down to my being unusual rather than attractive.

Tommy failed to mention the skin and hair though. He asked me questions about my life and told me about his. He was twenty-one, worked in a music shop in the town, lived in a student house with his friends at the bar, and had spent some time living in America with his father. When he wasn’t working, he played his guitar in local pubs and clubs.

Then he asked if he could walk me home.

He handed over his treasured guitar to the housemate who had brought my orange juice over and I waved goodbye to my friends.

He took my hand in his. We walked through the grounds of the Uni, down the hill to the little bridge and under a weeping willow tree he kissed me.

It was a good three miles to my house but I didn’t want the walk to end – ever – but it did and I knew that my very protective mother would be watching anxiously for my return.

Tommy wrote down my address on the back of my concert ticket and tucked it into his jeans pocket. Lucky ticket. I had already memorised everything that he had told me. We parted on the corner of the road – out of my mother’s sight.

Tommy was working at the music shop the next day but being Saturday, I was free to meet him for lunch without having to embroider a tale of meeting friends for my mother.

Four months. We saw each other nearly every day; I had to get a bus to town from school and then another bus to my home so it was easy enough to break my journey and see Tommy at the shop. My mother was used to me taking my time to get home. I didn’t exactly lie to her about where I was but Tommy became my first ever secret.

My friends were envious; they wanted to know every detail. Had we done ‘it’ yet? If we hadn’t done ‘it’ yet, how far had we gone?

Tommy was a gentle man; aware of my tender years and lack of experience – he was my first real boyfriend after all – he never pressured me. I knew from his ex-girlfriends – and there were many – that he had definitely done ‘it’ with them.

Especially Angie. Angie had long straight blonde hair and big blue eyes. She wore a tailored black velvet blazer, skin-tight jeans and a black tee-shirt sequined with a crescent moon and stars. She was older than me and epitomised cool. I only met her the once; our paths crossed as I was going into the toilets. Sobranje Black Russian cigarette in hand, she looked me up and down, sneered, blew smoke in my face and stalked off leaving me choking, embarrassed and confused.

I asked Tommy about her reluctantly. He hugged me and said that the world was full of Angies but there was only one Giulia for him. I felt loved. I felt special.

‘Come with me?’

More than anything I wanted to go with him and see the Strawberry Moon; to dance in its light and to watch the sun come up.

I knew that my mother wouldn’t let me go, so I began to make plans. Plans that involved collaboration with my best friend Joanna and the possibility of a sleepover. Joanna wasn’t that keen but she was a good friend, and as she lived some distance from my house, there was little chance of my mother ‘dropping in’ to check on me and we didn’t have a telephone at the time.

I smuggled clothes to Joanna’s in advance. Part of me was excited but part of me felt guilty about keeping this secret from my mother. Tommy blew it all away though, with his soft pleas and his gentle smile.

The fateful day came at last and my mother walked me to the bus stop, carrying the overnight bag that I would be swapping for a rucksack when I got to Joanna’s. I hugged her but couldn’t look into her eyes, those piercing green eyes, because I knew that she would see my secret.

Tommy and his friends picked me up in an old car that they had borrowed. I squeezed into the back seat with Tommy and two girls who, already high on something, giggled for most of the journey and then fell asleep until we reached our destination.

There was an air of party already; tents were being erected, campfires built, guitars strummed and old friends greeting each other. Tommy had acquired a tent and a sleeping bag from somewhere. He put it up quickly and we stowed our rucksacks and Tommy’s guitar inside before joining the rest of his friends.

We danced. Tommy played his guitar and we sang. We watched the amber-coloured moon rise and drank rough cider from paper cups. When the celebrations had died down, like many of the others we went back to the tents.

No need to go into the detail but it was a night I will never forget. We did ‘it’ under the Strawberry Moon. Tommy and I became one and fell asleep in each other’s arms.

The sound of a flute woke us later on and climbing out of bed, we saw the sun rising and we joined the others as the longest day of the year began.

It was a very long day.

We drove home at lunchtime; it was a much quieter journey but Tommy dropped me off near Joanna’s and we arranged to meet at the shop the next day. Joanna met me at the door and I could tell from her face that something was wrong. My mother sat on the sofa in the front room. Her face was both sad and angry. Joanna’s mother called a taxi to take us home.

I was grounded initially; hoping that Joanna would get a message to Tommy and that she could pass his on to me but my mother already had it covered. My mother made me promise not to contact Tommy, and I, made guilty by her sadness and disappointment, did as I was told. Two days after the solstice my mother and I were on our way back to Ireland to stay with her family. My mother came back on her own a fortnight later to sort things out with the house and to give in her notice at work.

How she knew at that early stage that I would be pregnant, I’ll never know. Sod’s law that I – the good girl – would get caught out on my very first time. My mother’s family closed ranks around me and my beautiful baby girl was born into our midst.

I called her Summer.

I never heard from Tommy again, or Joanna, or any of my friends. My mother cared for Summer and I went back to school and passed my exams with excellent results. Apart from Summer I had little else to think about.

In my mind I had decided that Tommy had got back with Angie, and I tried to be happy for them.

I trained as a nurse and just as these things do, I fell for a doctor. He was kind and clever, and prepared to take on Summer as part of the package. He met with my mother’s approval as well as the rest of the family. We moved to California when Summer was ten years old and I spent hours on the beach under a very yellow sun.

Summer grew up to be an artist and a musician. She met a fellow musician on Venice Beach and they had three beautiful children. They were living my dream. There are grey streaks in Summer’s brown curls but her fingers are long and clever.

My mother died four years ago and kept a secret to the grave. When we visited for the funeral, my aunt presented me with a box tied with a red ribbon. It contained Tommy’s letters to me; one almost every day at the start, then tailing off as he failed to get a response. All professing his love for me and his bewilderment at me disappearance. My mother told my friends that we were going back to Ireland but didn’t give them an address. She left a letter for me apologising for her secret but also saying how proud she was of my success, of Summer’s success and of the beautiful babies.

Summer had always known about Tommy. Had always known that she was different and she pored over the letters for hours when we came back. She wants to know what happened to Tommy but I am not sure.

So tonight, I look up at the Strawberry Moon with my youngest grandchild asleep on my lap. I ruffle his soft brown curls and my mind drifts back to a magical night in 1967 when I watched the sun rise for the summer solstice.

 

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Cliffhanger – Week 24 of the 52 week short story challenge

Home For Sale Real Estate Sign Isolated on a White Background.

The ‘For Sale’ sign outside her house came as a bit of a shock. She didn’t remember putting it up for sale and she didn’t recall her partner Andy saying anything about it.

Sarah parked her car outside the house, grabbed her bag and files, locked up and went to inspect the sign again. It looked new.  Had the estate agent made a mistake and hammered it into the garden of the wrong house? She looked at the houses either side of hers and shook her head. Surely one of them would have said something; they were on good terms with all their neighbours and putting your house up for sale was the sort of thing you let other people know about. Wasn’t it?

Still puzzled, Sarah let herself in and put the files on the hall table, bag on the floor and keys in the designated bowl. Andy bought the bowl for her; partly out of affection and partly exasperation as they were late for yet another party because she couldn’t find her keys. It was a very pretty bowl. White pottery with a pattern of delicate poppies and cornflowers. It was very feminine in a way that try as she could, Sarah could never achieve.

She didn’t do little dresses with frills, spend hours over her hair and makeup nor squeeze her feet into fashionably high and uncomfortable shoes.  She was aware of the fact that she would never be Andy’s ideal woman, but then for the last twenty years he had been anything other than her ideal man.

‘Andy? Hello?’ She shrugged off her coat and hung it on the neat but characterless coat stand.

‘Up here.’ Came the reply. His voice sounded odd, and she wondered what she had done this time. Taking extra care to put her boots neatly on the shoe rack, Sarah walked slowly up the stripped pine stairs.

He wasn’t in their bedroom. She turned around and walked into the guest bedroom, not that they ever had any guests.

Andy stood behind the bed, which was covered with clothes, toiletries and a very large rucksack that still bore the label of the outdoor pursuits shop Andy loved to frequent. He looked up and gave a slightly guilty smile that made him look even more goat-like than he normally did..

She frowned. ‘Some idiot’s gone and put a For Sale sign up in our front garden. I was just going to ring the estate agents and ask them to remove it. What’s all this Andy? Are we going somewhere?’

‘Er, WE aren’t. I am. The sign isn’t a mistake. I’m putting the house up for sale.’

‘Our house? Why?’

‘My house. My mother’s house originally. I’m going away.’

‘But – but – we’ve lived here for twenty years. Where are you going?’ Sarah sat down on the very edge of the already crowded bed.  She didn’t like the house. She never had, and any attempt to remove the remnants of Andy’s childhood and his mother’s desire for neat, orderly and feminine, had been gently but firmly rebuffed.

‘We aren’t going anywhere Sarah. I’m leaving tonight and I’ve put the house sale in the hands of my solicitors. You can stay here until the house is sold of course but the estate agent thinks that she can get a fairly quick sale.’

Brain whirring as she tried to process Andy’s words, Sarah sat immobile on the bed. Andy continued packing things into the rucksack.  He was an excellent packer she would say that for him. He folded clothes very precisely and knew exactly which of the Velcro edged pockets would be best for the object in his hand.

‘Where are you going Andy? Shouldn’t we have talked about this?’

Patiently, he put down the pair of immaculately ironed shorts that he was rolling into a sausage that would prevent any travel creases.

‘I’m going to Thailand. I’ve worked my notice already and my plane leaves at twenty-hundred hours. I have booked a taxi to take me to the airport. I don’t want any scenes; you know how embarrassing I find them.’

‘Why Thailand? Why now? Are you going alone? Why are you selling the house? Why didn’t you tell me this a month ago when you handed in your notice?’

‘So many questions Sarah. I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand and whenever I raised the subject you made some silly comments about ladyboys and kidnapping. Some idea you got from one of those trashy novels you read I suppose.’

‘But – but – but what am I going to do? I won’t have a home anymore, what will our friends think?’

‘MY friends already know and think that I am making the right decision. We’ve gone stale Sarah.  We were never that compatible in the first place but your untidiness and slapdash ways have been driving me to distraction for years. It was charming at first but now it’s just self-indulgent. My sister will be coming up to pack my belongings and put them in storage while I’m away so I’d be grateful if you could start looking for somewhere else to live so that she has less to go through.’

Sarah hated Andy’s sister Abigail with a passion.  The thought of her rummaging through the house, their house, made her feel incredibly angry.

‘Don’t I have any say in this at all?’ she shouted at him, her hands balled into tight fists that desperately wanted to punch him in the face, to grab hold of that silly ginger goatee beard and tug it till his eyes watered.

‘Ah yes. time for the hysterics. This is why I didn’t tell you before. You really are rather predictable.’

‘I hate you Andy!’ she said vehemently.

‘Good. That makes it a lot easier for me.’ he picked up a neatly typed list and handed it to her. ‘This is an inventory of the contents of the house. Those typed in black belong to me, those in red are yours or things that we bought together that I don’t wish to keep. Abigail, my solicitor and the estate agent all have copies of this letter too.  Would you mind moving off the bed now please? I have to finish my packing.’

Sarah stood up and walked slowly to the door.  She felt numb, unreal. Her instinct was to go into their bedroom, throw herself on the bed and cry extremely loudly. This would have no effect on Andy whatsoever. Passion of any sort was alien to him.

She went into the bedroom nevertheless and got under the duvet. She  rolled over to Andy’s side of the bed and sniffed his pillow hoping that the remaining scent of his hair might break through the wall that was building up around her.

Nothing.

He’d changed the bedding.

Sarah wanted to scream and shout and rave. How dare he! How dare he plot and scheme behind her back in this way. She’d seen no change in his manner over the past month, had she? She rewound her memories and found no major arguments.

Nothing.

She found no major moments of happiness either.

Andy would wake her with a cup of coffee, then he would shower and shave, eat his horribly healthy breakfast and be out of the door before she had even made up her mind as to whether she would shower or have a bath. The choice was usually dictated by how long she had lingered over her coffee and the BBC news.

They had been embroiled in a cold war over the television in their bedroom almost from the start of their relationship. It was Sarah’s television and she needed its cheery morning information to wake her up.  Andy had no time for lingering  and lost no opportunity to express his disdain for her.

The more she thought about it, the more Sarah had to admit that Andy was right. They were going through the motions of a relationship but there was no laughter left, no fun. Just a distant, healthy, athletic landscape gardener and an untidy, disorganised social worker who found her partner’s style of living both reassuring and stifling.

It was warm and comforting under the duvet and, as had always been her habit, Sarah fell into a deep sleep that wiped away all that had happened since she had arrived home.

It was such a deep sleep that she barely registered the affectionate peck on the cheek and the gentle ‘Goodbye’ as the bedroom door clicked shut.

When she woke, the house was quiet, too quiet.  she reached for the remote and turned on the television in time to catch the end of the ten o’clock news.  It wasn’t until she’d finished watching the weather that she remembered Andy.

‘Andy?’ she called, half hoping that he would reply but knowing that he had gone. She rolled out of bed and wondered for a moment why she had been in bed fully clothed in her going-to-meetings suit and vaguely pretty blouse that she had allowed Andy to buy her.

‘Andy?’ she called again and pushed open the guest bedroom door. The bed was bare now, save for another copy of Andy’s inventory list. She pushed it onto the floor in disgust and decided that she was hungry.

Making as much noise as her be-socked feet would let her, Sarah stomped down the stairs in a manner guaranteed to annoy Andy, if he was there.

But there was no response.

The curtains in the lounge were drawn and the sidelights on, the kitchen was similarly put into evening mode by Andy before he left. Thoughtful to the last.

Thoughtful! How could it be thoughtful to abandon your partner of twenty years and sell the house from under her? Sarah pouted as she opened the fridge door looking for immediate food. The shelf containing Andy’s macrobiotic foodstuffs and bottles of water was empty. Her shelf was always more interesting anyway. It certainly was now; Andy had stocked it with the items that he normally found disgusting. Sarah extracted a can of Diet Coke, some sliced cheese and bread.

She made her sandwich and left the knife and chopping board on the worktop. She didn’t even bother with a plate, as twenty years of Andy’s rules flew out of the window. It felt good to be curled up on the sofa, balancing her sandwich and can on the leather arm whilst flicking through the TV channels for something other than wildlife and gardening.

The phone rang and without thinking, Sarah jumped to her feet knocking over the can and spreading breadcrumbs onto the floor. She looked at the phone. Abigail. No thanks. Leaving the answerphone to deal with her much loathed  sister-in-law, Sarah dug her mobile out of her bag and went back into the lounge, stepping over the sticky mess on the floor. She could hear Abigail’s annoyingly sweet voice being patronising over the phone as she left a message guaranteed to patronise and infuriate Sarah.

When in doubt, phone a friend.

‘Jude?’ Sarah could feel her voice cracking already.

‘Hello Honey. No need to explain. I got home from work today to find a type-written note from your ex-beloved explaining why he was running away to Thailand without you and selling the house. Little rat!’

‘Why didn’t you call me Jude?’

‘Your phone was off.’

‘He must have done it before he left. Pig!’

‘He’s gone then?’

‘Yes indeed!’ Sarah tried to inject as much enthusiasm into her response as possible.

‘And I bet you are drinking Diet Coke and eating a sandwich in the lounge without a plate or coaster in sight.’

‘Right again. I’m not sure what to do now though. I spilt my drink on the floor and there are crumbs everywhere.’

‘I’m on my way. Are you still hungry?’

“Yes, this cheese sandwich is disgusting.”

‘Good, what we need is red wine and kebabs.’

‘Won’t Dan mind?

‘No, my darling husband sends his love and hugs and asks that you send me home in one piece tomorrow. I’ll be there in half an hour.’

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Birthday – Week 23 of the 52 week short story challenge

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I can remember every moment of your birth-day – and that of your younger brother who was considerably bigger than you but slipped out with an ease and speed that caught the midwife on the hop. More of him another time.

Before you were born I had two miscarriages. I wasn’t sure if I could carry a pregnancy to full term; if I would ever know what it felt like to hold my child in my arms, to watch him or her grow into an independent person.

So when we got to the thirteen-week scan and could see your little heart beating, your Dad and I (and your Grandma) finally dared to hope that our dreams might come true. They didn’t do scan pictures in those days but your Dad had come prepared and was allowed to take photos of the screen.

We christened you Parsley. After Parsley the Lion, a character in one of our favourite children’s programmes – The Herbs. It wasn’t until the twenty-week scan that we found out that you were a boy and you became Robin. Robin Goodfellow. Robin the Hooded Man. His friends are more than fond of Robin. All our hopes and joys were invested in you.

This pregnancy was different.  All the symptoms that had been missing in the previous two pregnancies were there; the nausea, going off certain foods, craving other foods – especially cod in cheese sauce and crunchy cornflakes with strawberries.

You don’t like fish.

We went to National Childbirth Trust antenatal classes. All first-time parents, all nervous and full of questions – except for the immaculate health visitor with the designer bump and gorgeous husband who was planning a water birth at home. She knew it all – and she made sure that we knew that she knew it all.

Fast forward to the day before your birth-day. Things felt different. I started fussing and nest building. The labour bag was packed and unpacked a dozen times and when my waters broke – luckily after we had been shopping at Sainsburys and put it all away – we phoned the hospital and were told to come on in.

You were in no rush though. Your Dad and I spent most of the following morning trudging round endless hospital corridors in an effort to get labour started. It was more diverting than lying on a hospital bed and feeling uncomfortable. The words of our antenatal teacher rang in my ears. ‘Keep upright as much as you can and let gravity do the work for you.’

The nurses on the ward would have preferred me flat on my back and well-behaved because they kept losing me.

Our consultant – who bore a striking resemblance to Maggie Smith – turned up at half-past two in the afternoon and although she smiled, we could see that she was slightly disappointed that you weren’t likely to make an appearance before she clocked off for the day.

We went into the labour ward around six o’clock that night. You were on the way. I tried to remember all the things our teacher taught us. Then I got told off. I was doing the empowering grunting thing. ‘Don’t waste your energy screaming – grunt and push.’

The midwife told me I was frightening the other mummies with my Neanderthal noises. I ignored her and carried on. Gas and air made me bold. Your Dad grinned and got the odd whiff of gas and air.

You gave us a bit of a fright when you finally emerged at half-past seven (in time for Coronation Street according to Grandma). Your APGAR score was low because you had managed to wrap the umbilical cord around your neck – not once, nor twice but three times. Liberated and unwound, you pinked up nicely and let out a yell. The midwife let go of the end of the cord and – according to your Dad because I was out of it by then- it flick-flacked around and sprayed the ceiling. Tennessee Chainsaw Massacre apparently.

Your Dad had you to himself for the first hour of your life. The midwives weren’t happy that all the placenta had come away so I had to go to theatre and have a ‘scrape’ under general anaesthetic. By the time I came around  I was back on the ward with you and your very proud Dad.

I never drink full fat milk and I’m not enamoured of egg sandwiches but these were offered to me and nothing ever tasted so good.
Your Dad went home to bed and I tried to sleep. You were in a cot beside me and I kept one hand on your head all night to make sure you were real and no one could take you away.

We had to stay in hospital for three days; I had stitches and you were jaundiced. It was torture because we lived so close to the hospital that I could see our house. Every night your Dad stood out in the garden and shone a torch so I could see he was thinking of us. I knew that.

We escaped on the fourth day and I can remember lying on our bed at home, feeding you and devouring Kentucky Fried Chicken. We were told to get you out in the sunshine to get rid of your jaundice.

You got sunburn – the yellow turned to pink and your ~Dad went out to buy a sunshade.

We didn’t do too bad for new parents; we only forgot you once. I’d strapped you into your car seat and left you at the top of the stairs for your Dad to bring down and put in the car. It wasn’t until he started the car that I realised something was missing. You slept through the whole thing so I don’t think you were mentally scarred.

Our theme song was ‘Kooks’ by David Bowie. You came to live in a lovers’ story. We hope you haven’t been sorry.

The antenatal class met up again six weeks after you were born. We shared our birth stories and showed off our babies. We tried not to look smug when the golden couple turned up with their screaming baby (and not very pretty). The water birth at home had to be abandoned and she was rushed into hospital for an emergency C-section. All that expense! Unlike her baby, the mother was very quiet during our catch up session. She looked rather unkempt and her husband’s tee-shirt had sick marks on the shoulder – just like the rest of us now.

So the birthdays came and the birthdays went. You were a left-hander and you skipped to school because you loved it so much. A prodigious reader;I had to buy two copies of each Harry Potter book when they came out because you didn’t want to wait till I had finished it. I always finished first but you said this was because I didn’t have to go to school and lose valuable reading time.

Senior school followed primary school, and we were told that you were officially a National Gifted and Talented Youth.  You made your own path – avoiding games and PE as much as possible  – but you were a very strong swimmer which made up for it. When everyone else was wearing an extremely short school tie, yours was a more respectable  – and acceptable – level because you didn’t care about such things.

You had your group of friends and parents’ evenings were embarrassingly wonderful for all of us. Dad helped you with your German and I dredged the depths of my mind for my GCE French. The maths and sciences were beyond me.

You aced your GCSEs and went onto college to do your ‘A’ levels. I panicked when we didn’t get a call from you after you got your results. I had visions of you throwing yourself into a canal in despair because you hadn’t got A stars.

I shouldn’t have worried. You sauntered in and showed me your results. All A stars. What was the fuss about Mum?

University was a foregone conclusion. So was your first-class honours degree in Chemistry and now you are studying for a PhD with a long title that I can never remember. Something to do with amino acids.

You are a teacher. A mentor. A scientist. You also mix a mean cocktail and know how to have a good time. Your knowledge of politics astounds me and I value your advice (and your cocktails). You are a bit more of a dedicated follower of fashion since the school tie days.

We don’t see that much of you because you are a hundred miles away and have your own life to lead but you know that you have surpassed our expectations and that we are very, very proud of you.

Robin Goodfellow. Robin the Hoodied Man. His friends are still more than fond of Robin.

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Dead or Undead – Week 22 of the 52 week short story challenge

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Another list.

A shorter one but one which tugged at her heart strings.

You blame FaceAche of course. In the days before social media people would tell each other how they felt – face to face, or on the phone – but people thought about what they were saying – usually.

Social media made it all so simple.

Snappy, ill-thought out comments typed on a computer, a tablet or a phone.

Press the send button and move on.

Blame it on auto correct or a typo if people take offence.

Shrug it off if you don’t care.

Time and experience had led you to an understanding of depression and unhappiness. You empathise with those who felt the pain and were in awe of those who fought against their demons on a daily basis.

Some survived the sadness.

Some didn’t, and she mourned the loss of them and that they could see no light at the end of the tunnel.

Then there were the people on the list.

People you knew and cared for.

People who you had listened to and did your best to support.

People whose unhappiness was rooted in the past, long before you knew them or was in a position to have any impact on their lives.

So why were they laying the blame at your door now?

Sitting on your shoulders, the pensive and impulsive angels watch as you scan the list.

‘Get rid of them.’ said Impulsive. ‘You don’t need people like that in your life. It’s only social media and if you block and unfriend them you can’t see what they have to say about you anyway.”

‘So sad.’ said Pensive. ‘These are people that you care about. Why do you want them out of your life?’

Does someone care about you when they send you hateful messages because you won’t do as you’re told?

Surely if people care about you they will accept you as you are – regardless of your political beliefs or whether you choose not to like the people that they like?

‘Be yourself.’ said Impulsive. ‘You don’t need people like that. They’ll sap your energies and make you feel guilty for things that aren’t your fault. Surely you should be allowed to choose your own friends and hold your own opinions without being told that you have to change to make other people happy.’

‘Yes.’ said Pensive. ‘But these are people who have been supportive to you. Friends who you trusted. Do you really want them out of your life. Do you want them to disappear?’

If they are going to blame you for their unhappiness, then yes.

Spotting phonies and parasites has always been so easy – except that spotting them long before anyone else does can cause issues. You find yourself wary and unable to trust them when everyone else is singing their praises.

Then the person concerned realises that you have seen through their facade; that you pose a risk to their life and slowly, they begin to spread the poison about you whilst proving themselves to be such a good and valuable friend to everyone.

‘I know the type.’ said Impulsive. ‘If your other friends are so blind then they can’t be worth much anyway.’

‘But they are.’ said Pensive. ‘It isn’t their fault that they are more trusting and gullible than you are. It isn’t a reason to cut them out of your life is it?’

In some cases, yes. The constant nagging to get you to change your mind wears you down. The pleading on behalf of a person who took money from you, told lies about you and put you in this unhappy situation. The hateful messages blaming you for everything that has ever gone wrong. You want them gone. You want them dead to you.

Pensive sighed, as was her way. Impulsive grinned, knowing that she had won this particular battle. They watched as the pen scratched through the first three names on the list.

‘What about these two?’ said Pensive. ‘What makes them different from the others?’

‘If they are making you unhappy, strike them off too.’ said Impulsive.

These are harder to get rid of. These two are people whose demons tell them that anyone who doesn’t think the same as them is against them. These two are people who either cut you out of their life, or who are not content to let you have your own beliefs and be true to yourself.

Before social media it didn’t matter.

Before social media you could think what you wanted about politics and it was your own business and no one else’s.

But now, you see a post that you believe in and you want to share it with your friends.

You work on the basis that if you see a post from a friend and you don’t like it, then you move on and ignore it.

These two people don’t see it that way.

One wants you to stop expressing your opinions on social media because they feel that you are wrong.

The other feels that you can only post your opinions provided you post the opposite opinion as well. This person feels that you need to provide more balance. This person insists on putting unpleasant comments on your page. Comments that upset you and your friends.

So you delete them.

The person repeats the comments and refuses to stop.

So you delete them again.

You send a message politely requesting that the person just ignore comments that they don’t like or keep their comments on their own page.

The person says they are trying to put balance on your page.

Both people blame you for their unhappiness and insist that it is you who must change to make them happy.

But that will make you unhappy.

‘You aren’t to blame for their sadness.’ said Pensive.

‘Even if you did what they asked you to do, something else would inevitably cause them distress and you would have compromised for nothing.’ said Impulsive.

That’s why they have to go.

That’s why they are on the list.

They will be missed but time will heal as it does with any mourning.

The pen strikes out the last two names.

The sun is shining through clouds.

‘Fresh air.’ said Impulsive. ‘Let’s go to the seaside and eat ice cream.’

‘Yes.’ said Pensive. ‘Time to move away from FaceAche and think more positive thoughts.’

Dead but not dead.

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